The 99% are poor, angry, and educated. We are those with student loans, who could not pay for higher education without them, only to be faced with no available work in our fields, debt compounded with interest, and still no jobs open. We are those with low pay, cut hours, and an increased workload, told we should feel thankful – at least we have a job. We are the single parents, the elderly, the homeless, the jobless, the families afraid of losing their homes. We are America. We are the problem, and the solution. Stand up and represent.
I wrote that while struggling with the idea of Occupy Wall Street, and trying to find my place in the 99%. I had been talking with a friend about the movement and our complex feelings about it. I was feeling so powerless. I didn’t see myself as being able to make a difference. I didn’t see a solution being presented and I had no idea what could happen to make things better. I actually felt that my presence, my voice, wouldn’t matter.
I told my friend that I would just be going to occupy to just … go. I’d be one more person standing there, powerless to do anything. And he said, I think that is the point, to just be there, to be present. It was as if a lightbulb went off in my head. “You’re right,” I said. That is exactly the point of occupying wall street, and the countless other cities, towns, and villages that are now being occupied.
And a movement that seemed so outside of myself suddenly became who I am. I am one of the 99%. I am one of the many faces of poverty; I am one of the people for whom the system is not working. I am a single mother. I do not own anything, neither house nor car. I’m ridiculously poor.
I stand with the thousands of Americans who are under the yoke of student loan debt – and in my pursuit to rise from a lower economic class through education, I have actually encountered just become another form of social reproduction. Yes, I am educated. But I am still poor, and in many ways my education has prevented me from being hired for even the most menial of jobs that I have applied for, hoping for any type of full-time employment.
I would be lying if I said that it does not hurt my pride to say that I am poor, to say that I am a single mother receiving food stamps and government medical insurance for my children. I’ve been raised with a worker ethic, and it hurts to feel that I cannot provide for my family. And no matter how good of a parent I am, I feel like a failure.
Like so many people in the 99%, I have been silent about my economic reality. To some degree, I’ve felt that it is my own fault, my own problem. I’ve thought that maybe if I work harder, try harder, I can find a breathing room. Maybe one day I can own a home. Maybe one day I won’t worry about money, and I’ll be able to buy new clothes and nice shoes and all the other little things that seem so trivial to me now.
And even though I know all about social reproduction, even though I know there is a built in system that is keeping me here, even though I fear there is no way I can ever make enough money to repay my student loans with the accrued interest that only gets deeper each year … Even though I know I am a good writer, a good person, a good mother, a good teacher, a good friend … I am trapped in an economic nightmare. I am one of the 99%.
What can be done? I don’t know. I am not an economist or a political scientist, and I do not have the answer. But I do know that I am not alone. I live in a country where a very small percentage of the people control the majority of wealth – and there are certain things in place that encourage this disparity, that fuel the concept we call social reproduction, and keep these economic divisions. And it at this crucial place where the 99% are hoping to make a difference.
So what can I do? I can stand up and represent as one of the 99%. I can speak out. I can occupy my silence. And perhaps if enough of us transform our thoughts into language and action, and speak as those whose voices have not been heard … there can be real and positive change into how the majority of Americans live and work.
I’m going to share an excerpt of Audre Lorde’s essay, The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action. It is a powerful piece of work, important, and necessary:
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.
I was forced to look upon myself and my living with a harsh and urgent clarity that has left me still shaken but much stronger. Some of what I experienced during that time has helped elucidate for me much of what I feel concerning the transformation of silence into language and action.
In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak …
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears … because I am myself, doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?